Nature and nurture
August 9, 2006
Those who knew Brad Miller 30 years ago, back when Miller was a fine art student at the University of Oregon, might think that Miller hasn’t come far in three decades. Miller, now 56, is still working with the same forms, inspired by the natural world, that he was as an undergraduate. Not only is he working with the same shapes, but one recent project – “Wave Shadows,” a portfolio of photograms that capture the shadows of water at the bottom of a tray – had its origins as a student project.And those who knew Miller 20 years ago might have similar thoughts. Two decades ago, Miller was first named director of the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village. Today, Miller again occupies the director’s office.Miller, however, has hardly been stationary over the years. He has just happened to land back on two squares – biomorphic imagery and Anderson Ranch – that continue to tickle his fancy and provide inspiration. Miller has never really taken a leave from the biomorphic imagery – patterns and forms, like ice crystals and cellular structures, that are nature’s hidden artwork – that he discovered at Oregon’s art department. Known best for his ceramic work, which was his first specialty, Miller has branched out into a variety of other media. But the biomorphic shapes remain a touchstone in all of them.Miller has had a break from Anderson Ranch. He and his wife, Mollie Favour, were both hired at the Ranch as ceramic instructors, in the early ’80s. In 1984, Miller was named interim director, and soon after the interim tag was dropped. Miller stayed on as director for eight years. In 1994, he left the Ranch to pursue a career as a full-time artist, based at his Woody Creek home studio. When Jim Baker, who had directed the photography department under Miller’s leadership, resigned as director of Anderson Ranch in the spring, Miller was named interim director. This time, however, he says there will be no transition. A search committee comprising people with close ties to the Ranch – board members and past presidents, an administrator and a department director – has hired a search firm to identify candidates for the director’s position. Miller is not a candidate, nor does he care to be. When his term expires Oct. 1, he will return to the Los Angeles’ Venice neighborhood, where he moved with his family in 2000, and continue his work as an artist. One of the biggest reasons he accepted the position as interim director was, he said, “it was a nice way to reconnect to the community, both Anderson Ranch and the larger community. And it was four months.”
Miller grew up in Portland, Ore., and when he entered the University of Oregon, he did so with vague notions that he would study architecture or visual design or product design. But the art studios proved a strong attraction. “I just loved walking through the art department there. I ended up spending eight years there,” said Miller, who earned a bachelor’s degree and a masters of fine art at Eugene.Early on in his studies, Miller was introduced to a pair of books that have remained touchstones throughout his working life. One was “On Growth and Form,” a World War I-era study by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. The other was “Art Forms in Nature,” a 1904 book by the German scientist Ernst Haeckel. The two authors had their differences: Haeckel was greatly influenced by his acquaintance, Charles Darwin; Thompson believed biologists placed too much emphasis on evolution, and not enough on the structures of living things. But what the two had in common intrigued Miller: an interest in the shapes and designs that occur in nature, often too small or too obscure to be readily noticed.Miller’s master’s project, “Close Packing and Cracking,” was based on such naturally occurring patterns as the arrangement of frogs’ eggs. The project became a catalog, with an introduction by Buckminster Fuller, who had many of the same influences as Miller.Miller still has both Thompson’s and Haeckel’s books at hand in his office, and makes use of them. “I look at this book several times a year,” said Miller of Haeckel’s book, which features numerous prints of science-inspired images. “And not just me. Thousands of artists look at this book every year.” Miller points out one print, and says, “I’ve made bowls that look just like this.And not just bowls. Miller’s output includes “dendritic” drawings, based on branch patterns. His award-winning website, http://www.bradmillerstudio.com, is built around such shapes. Two years ago, he did a commissioned piece, “White Wall,” for a Woody Creek homeowner. “White Wall” is an homage to Haeckel, and timed to honor the 100th anniversary of “Art Forms in Nature.” (Miller forgot to tell the collector of that source of inspiration, and made a mental note to correct the oversight.) An even newer piece, an 8-foot wood sculpture for the new Denver Hyatt hotel, is roughly based on mitosis, the process in which two cells split. “You can see how these patterns – bubble patterns, packing patterns – are all throughout the work,” said Miller.For the Anderson Ranch Annual Art Auction, Miller has donated “All Clear,” a 2004 piece of burned and sealed wood, whose patterns also suggest mitosis. The auction, a benefit for Ranch programs, is set for Saturday, Aug. 12. The event begins with registration for the auction at 11 a.m.; a community picnic, print sale and silent auction at 11:30 a.m.; and the live auction at 1:30 p.m. Other artists whose work is in the live auction include Enrique Martinez Celaya, Frank Stella, Alexis Rockman, Sam Maloof and Christo & Jeanne-Claude, as well as locals James Surls, Kathleen Loe, Mark Cesark, Doug Casebeer and Lloyd Schermer.One of Miller’s more revealing projects – revealing of his influences and of how those influences have remained with him – is the photogram series. Photograms are a type of photography that involves exposing film directly to light, without the use of a camera. Miller began experimenting with the form as an undergrad, but with unsatisfying results. The equipment at the University of Oregon in the ’70s wasn’t adequate to his vision.
In recent years, Miller, who has returned often to Anderson Ranch to teach, work and study, has made great strides with the photograms. His images – essentially, the shadows of bubbles, ice crystals and waves of water in a tray – can now be made into huge prints, thanks to advances in digital imagery. Last year, Anderson Ranch published “Wave Shadows,” a collection of 20 of Miller’s photograms that unearth the beauty and mystery hidden in nature. Several of Miller’s photograms have been used on covers of academic books on fractals.”The digital equipment here has made it possible to do photograms,” said Miller, who has made some of his recent prints from film exposed in 1983. “I’m grateful to the Ranch because it’s something I’ve wanted to do for 30 years.” Miller first came to Aspen in 1969, working in construction but mainly living as a ski bum. When Favour got her master’s, in 1980, the two returned to the Roaring Fork Valley, for the purpose of selling a home Favour owned in Basalt. Instead, both were hired by Anderson Ranch director Kaleb Bach to teach ceramics and create a ceramics symposium for the following summer.Anderson Ranch at the time was still closer to the bucolic sheep and cattle ranch that the Anderson family ran since the early 1900s than to the bustling arts center it has become. “There was nothing but grass and fields. There were three trees, tiny-caliber aspens,” said Miller who, with Favour, made up half of the Ranch’s fulltime staff when they arrived. “It was a bare set-up. None of the buildings had been winterized. Not even basic tools, like hammers and saws.”Miller watched as architect Harry Teague, who has designed virtually all of Anderson Ranch, built the first building, a gallery and office, with a $5,000 grant. Bach became the first Ranch director to engage in serious fundraising, and handed off the leadership to Jeffrey Moore, who stayed on four years, giving the place stability.
“The place started to congeal,” said Miller. Moore “got things really rolling, got a print shop up and running. The activity level was modest in the winter, but there were excellent faculty coming through in the summer.”Moore’s successor lasted just a few months, and Miller stepped in as interim director, then full-time director. He oversaw a period of expansion: when Miller arrived, in 1980, the Ranch’s budget was $90,000; when he became director, it had increased to $330,000. By the time he left the Ranch, in 1994, the figure had ballooned to $1.8 million. (That growth phase continued over the 11-year tenure of Jim Baker, who oversaw a pair of capital campaigns that raised $5 million and resulted in an overhaul of the campus. The annual budget now stands at just under $4 million and the Annual Art Auction can bring in as much as $800,000.)When Miller resigned as director, he hardly severed ties with Anderson Ranch. He has taught there frequently; next week, he teaches a class in bowl design. From 1997-2000, he served as a board member. Now, in his second stretch as interim director, Miller finds he is able to make a contribution that even a fulltime director probably cannot.”The nice thing is, I can speak my mind,” he said. “What are they going to do, fire me? It’s liberating to be here for four months. And it adds a little stability, because it’s always a little rocky when a guy like Jim leaves.”Come Oct. 1, Miller expects there to be a real change in the director’s office. Where the last three long-lasting directors – Moore, Baker and Miller himself – were artists, Miller doesn’t see the next director of the Ranch having to put an art career on hold to become an administrator.”This next leadership probably won’t be that,” he said. “This has grown into a different kind of place. They’re going to need an administrative background.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org